If this year’s films are any indication, I think people in this country must feel pretty impotent. Thor is about a super strong Norse god who beats up giant monsters with a hammer. Captain America is about a super strong American soldier who beats up Nazis thanks to, I think, steroids. Green Lantern is about a super powerful frat boy who uses his magic space ring to beat up aliens. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is about giant robots beating up other giant robots. Sucker Punch is about a super hot girl who beats up, I don’t know, robot alien dragons and stuff. What does this say about our culture right now?
I think there’s an insatiable national hunger for Empowerment Fantasies. The stock market crash disempowered people, made them feel their destinies were in the hands of mysterious market forces rather than their own. Then they watched all these Wall Street Lex Luthor types avoid punishment, and instead receive gigantic cash bailouts. The American people said, “Hey! Throw those people in prison! They’re evil!” They sent letters, appeared on television, staged protests, but no one went to jail—they got paid for being evil. The recession gave the impression that it doesn’t matter how hard you work, that your livelihood is subject to random hiccups of fate, the whim of a moody pissed off God. Also credit card debt.
In contrast to the world of superheroes, the real world has a depressing philosophical concept called “The Problem of Evil.” The gist is: if God is a just God and cares about us, why does he allow evil to happen? I won’t get into a religious debate, but what it comes down to is this: in the real world, the bad guys most often get away with shit, and the stock market crash is a perfect example of this. This sense of injustice festers in the collective unconscious like a cancer, and so they seek out the only therapy they can afford: cinematic fables of moral absolutism. With the government increasingly controlled by the rich and powerful, and their job security in a tenuous state, I think people have turned to superheroes to feel empowered.
People feel politically disempowered as well. Despite all the slogans about “change,” nothing seems to change no matter who you vote for—Republican or Democrat. People feel the world is broken, but no one feels they can fix it. Issues seem too colossal to make even a tiny difference. Global warming can’t be stopped. Sudanese children keep starving. Libya’s at war with itself. All you can do is read about it in the newspaper or write about it on the internet.
Speaking of which, I would say this disempowerment may also come from the internet. People are more connected than ever before, and I would suggest there’s a greater sense of smallness in comparison to the overwhelming size of the human population. At last, people have instant access to all these people who are more talented, richer, and better looking. They can get a view of their place within what Hegel called the “weltgeist” or “world spirit,” all the people in existence, together as one entity moving through time. Type your name into Google and see how many others there are with the same name. Understand suddenly that you’re not unique, but agonizingly common, a cog in a giant machine. Let the knowledge wash over you like a tidal wave of acid. Look on Facebook and notice you have fewer friends than everyone else. Realize that when you die, the world will keep moving as if nothing had happened.
The obsession with celebrities has grown so bloated and deranged, I get the sense many people know more about and feel more connected to, say, Charlie Sheen or Reese Witherspoon than their own friends. This disconnect between the rich and powerful we see on TV, magazines, and blogs, and our own lives doing things like, uh, folding clothes and changing ink cartridges, I would assert, creates a disempowering cognitive dissonance. How do we interpret our own lives when faced with a barrage of media concerning The Royal Marriage?
Maybe I’m wrong about one or more of these points, but it’s worth asking why people so desperately feel the need to watch superpeople beat up other superpeople right now. I know the first wave of recent superhero films came about following 9/11 at the start of the Iraq War, and yes, we still have the wars in Afghanistan and Libya and all the other places exploding, but I would suggest that this surge in superhero films isn’t due to just war or a recession, but a collective feeling of impotence.